A couple of days ago, I found myself at a Free Schools conference listening to Michael Gove, the English Minister for Education. I have little experience of listening to leading politicians live as opposed to through the media, so it was interesting to see how skilfully he worked his audience. A good deal of flattery and a lot of points containing an element of truth, but entirely one-sided and missing the other side of the picture. This is, I suppose, how politicians are successful: they can’t either please all of the people all of the time, nor can they please none, but they are able to reinforce the passion of the converted, and charm a fair section of the unconverted into at least temporary suspension of their critical faculties.
The creators of Free Schools, said Mr Gove, are “disruptive innovators” who are doing a favour to society, motivated by love for children. Here the rhetoric went into overdrive, as he compared the creators of Free Schools to Martin Luther and then Martin Luther King. I was almost expecting him to compare them to Jesus himself, but of course he didn’t want to risk causing offence to the faithful. Of course, we will meet ideological resistance, he said, but innovation is always disruptive and competes with older ways of doing things. Those who meet disruption as a result of innovation are challenged to smarten up their own act.
Although the rhetorical excesses only registered a grim smile with me, the core argument here is one with which I can sympathise. I would not have been sitting there, a potential creator of a sort of Free School myself (the Virtual Sixth Form College), unless it did. The basic idea of innovation being beneficial to society is straight out of the pages of John Stuart Mill. Mill argued powerfully that we should be given whatever freedom we require to innovate, for if we are not able to innovate then society cannot address the conditions it finds itself in. However, he also set a clear limit on that freedom: we should be free to innovate provided we do no harm to others or to their interests.
That, I think, is the question that at least some of the Free School creators around me may have needed to ask themselves with a little more care. If one sets up a new Free School in a locality which already has enough (or nearly enough) school places, and (as is certainly the case with some free schools) the justification for the new school is only one of increased parental choice or better quality than existing schools in the area, then this risks greatly undermining the recruitment and the support for, and hence the quality of, other schools in the area. The interests of the children and young people are thus at least in danger of being harmed. Even if the new Free School prospers, more children may suffer worse education than gain better education.
There will obviously, though, be some Free Schools which do a lot more good than harm, particularly in a locality where there is a genuine shortage of school places overall. Here there is space to exercise the innovation and enthusiasm of the ‘Free Schoolers’ without impacting on other schools very much. The Virtual Sixth Form College, I hope, will be in a similar position, not because it will specifically be catering for one area with a shortage of sixth form places, but because it will be offering an entirely different option for sixth form education in a way that is spread evenly across the country. No one existing school or college will be adversely affected by this except to an extremely marginal extent.
But there are also wider questions that Gove failed to answer about Free Schools. If the freedom to innovate is so good, why does he not simply introduce an act of parliament to grant the freedoms given to free schools (for example, to vary the curriculum and employ teachers without Qualified Teacher Status) to all existing schools? Does he really think that the talent and enthusiasm for making use of this freedom, so evident at the Free Schools conference, is lacking in all other schools? New challenges of competition between schools would then at least take place with greater equality of opportunity.
So, as you can see, despite being a potential Free School proposer myself, I am by no means in favour of the whole of the Free Schools programme in its current form. I am very much in favour of innovation in education, which is why I wish to take advantage of this opportunity to be an innovator. However, the opportunity for innovation is in no way consistently enough applied in the system that has been created. The amount of disruption caused by innovation also cannot be left open-ended: nobody can innovate without some degree of disruption, but innovation pursued without careful regard for the full context can create an unbalanced level of disruption that does not help the education system to address conditions better. Free School proposers should not take their inspiration from Martin Luther so much as from Aristotle and the Buddha, whose radical innovations were nevertheless contextualised in a wider ethic of balance.
Picture: Michael Gove (cropped) by David R Clarke: reproducible under Creative Commons Licence from Wikimedia Commons